“This is my advice,” says Walter Kirn. “Take it, because I don’t use it.” The students in his class, “The Art of Nonfiction,” lift their pencils or open new Word documents. “Inhibition and self-consciousness are the enemies of good writing.” The students know he’s kidding. He definitely uses this advice.
Since 2000, Atlantic editor and University of Chicago alumnus Robert Vare has underwritten the Vare Writer-in-Residence program at the UofC. The program brings professional nonfiction writers to campus, where they teach one class over the course of the year. This year, Vare handpicked one of his Atlantic writers for the job. Walter Kirn is a novelist, essayist, book reviewer, nonfiction author, and teacher, but he’ll describe himself only as “a writer.”
And write he does, with less inhibition and self-consciousness than anyone could reasonably expect. His recent scathing review of James Wood’s pretentious “How Fiction Works” reads like a manifesto on making literature accessible–one that his own work follows. With his trademark mixture of personal experience and engaging style, he has achieved the status of Capturer of the American Zeitgeist in the eyes of intellectuals and a place on the bookshelves and DVD cabinets of Joe the Plumber.
Kirn drew heavily on his small-town Mormon childhood to write the eerily relatable coming-of-age story “Thumbsucker.” In 2005, Mike Mills nodded at the story’s universality by adapting it into a feature film. (Kirn’s 2001 novel “Up in the Air” is currently receiving the Hollywood treatment from “Juno” director Jason Reitman.) His upcoming book, “Lost in the Meritocracy,” turns his experience as a poor kid at Princeton–“a modern cathedral that people give money to in hopes of going to some kind of secular heaven”–into a reflection on loneliness and the meaning of education, and frequent enlightened nonfiction articles in the Atlantic, Slate, Time, GQ, and the New York Times suggest a compulsively up-to-date conception of American culture. For example, he feels that he may have predicted the economic crisis in November of 2007 with an article, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” about the dangers of multitasking–and it’s hard to disagree.
While others might point at his unusual formative experience as the source of his success, Kirn chalks it up to his distaste for airplanes. “If I have any grasp of what’s going on in the U.S. it’s because I spend a lot of time on the road speaking to people who I might not meet if I were sticking to my own neighborhood.” “A lot of time” on the road is a gross understatement. Kirn’s Hyde Park apartment remains empty most of the time, and he’s still not quite sure where his office is on campus. These days his most frequent destinations are New York (for his publisher) and Montana (for his kids); past home bases have included Princeton, Los Angeles, and Cambridge, England.
Being a writer–much like being a small-town poor kid at Princeton in the early ’80s–is a lonely enterprise. Any attempt to find the truth through the pen will ultimately be subverted by the ever-present refracting glass of personal perception. As Kirn provides America with a stream of novelized portraits and 1500-word mirrors, his students provide him with assurance that what he’s doing is still relevant.
“My students … taught me that there’s still a lot of idealism around, a lot of belief in the value of literature, no matter how jaded the times may seem,” says Kirn, smiling. “That yes, there are others out there, and yes, they have a lot of faith in this enterprise of reading and writing is a continuously welcome revelation.”